Reconsider Japan’s space program

Koichi Wakata, who served as the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station, returned to Earth on May 14 after completing his fourth space mission. He reached the spacecraft in November, became its 39th commander on March 9 — the first Asian to head the space station — and safely operated the spacecraft for 66 days.

We congratulate Wakata on his achievements as an astronaut. Since he first boarded Space Shuttle Endeavor as a mission specialist in January 1996, his total time in space across four space trips has amounted to 348 days, the longest for a Japanese and followed by Soichi Noguchi’s 177 days.

Wakata took part in the development of a robot arm and other equipment used in space and participated in the construction of the ISS as a robot arm operator. But apart from Wakata’s achievements, Japan needs to consider whether its participation in the ISS project has produced benefits that justify the large amount of money it has spent.

A Japanese astronaut is expected to board the ISS in 2015 and another in 2016. But the ISS is scheduled to end its operation in 2020 at the earliest.

The Japanese government has so far spent some ¥826 billion on the project and plans to use another ¥35.7 billion in fiscal 2014. Its noteworthy national financial contribution to the project is comparable to that of Europe as a whole though smaller than the United States.’

The government justifies Japan’s participation in the ISS project by saying that it has been able to use the manned spacecraft by paying just one-hundredth the cost shouldered by the U.S. Through the project, the nation has acquired technological progress that contributes to the promotion of industries, and participation by Japanese astronauts has given hope to many Japanese youths, it says.

But attention also needs be paid to the critical view of some regarding manned space flights like the ISS project. At a dark- energy workshop at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore in September 2007, Steven Weinberg, a particle physicist at the University of Texas and a co-recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics, said: “The International Space Station is an orbital turkey. No important science has come out of it. I could almost say no science has come out of it.

“And I would go beyond that and say that the whole manned spaceflight program, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value.”

For example, manned space flight was used to repair the Hubble Telescope, which was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in 1990. Although Hubble succeeded in shedding light on the age and expansion of space, it might have accomplished more at far lower costs if it had been placed in an orbit much farther away from Earth, and thus more suitable for space observation, as a throwaway space probe.

Sending unmanned space probes to Mars multiple times would also be less costly, result in more technological and scientific achievements, and contribute more to advancement of industries than sending a manned spacecraft to the planet.

We should recall how much the Hayabusa unmanned space probe accomplished in studying an asteroid. Hayabusa, launched in May 2003, brought sample material from asteroid 25143 Itokawa to Earth in June 2010 at a cost of only about ¥20 billion. As budget pressures strengthen, Japan’s experts and taxpayers should seriously consider what approach will best serve its needs for space observation and exploration. The discussions should not be left to bureaucrats and politicians.

  • “As budget pressures become more competitive, it will be up to Japan’s experts and taxpayers to consider what approach will best serve the nation’s needs for space exploration — not bureaucrats and politicians.”

    But the experts and taxpayers have elected the bureaucrats and politicians. If we cannot entrust them with issues like this, what is their purpose?

    This editorial is rather undemocratic. You can’t just reneg on democracy and change the rules because you don’t trust the judgement of those you voluntarily elected. That is what elections are for. If the real wariness if of politicians being in a position of power over issues like this, then maybe it’s time we took back that power and stripped them of theirs.

  • A.J. Sutter

    I don’t have anything against smarter and less expensive unmanned scientific missions in space. But is the sole or even main justification for a manned space program to be a cost-effective method of scientific research? I think that’s a very questionable proposition. One doesn’t have to be a through-and-through space booster — personally, e.g., I’m no fan of commercializing outer space, mining asteroids or the Moon and such — to believe there are at least two other worthy purposes served by sending humans into space and toward celestial bodies.

    The first is as an opportunity for peaceful international cooperation. Sure, physicists, astronomers, engineers and other scientists from many nations can cooperate too. But that’s much less visible to the publics of the various nations than seeing their nationals cooperate with others on a team where everyone’s life depends on everyone else’s, in an environment that’s always reminding us we’re all from the same planet. As James Clay Moltz points out in his recent book “Crowded Orbits” (Columbia U Press 2014), the manned space programs of the US and USSR played a big role in keeping the Cold War cold.

    The second is as an inspiration to peoples’ imaginations, and especially young peoples’. It’s important to be able to marvel at things outside oneself. I grew up during the Space Race, covered my bedroom walls with maps of the Moon and constellations, and benefitted from the US push in science education. At college, my first concentration was in astronomy (I later switched to physics), and I had a chance to work on several manned and unmanned space science projects. I didn’t become a professional scientist, but my science background came in tremendously helpful to me as a lawyer, as a businessperson and as a citizen, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Of course, lots of my contemporaries stayed in science. One of my first portable computers, from the early 1990s, made Star Trek sounds when it booted up. Nowadays, our cellphones can pretty much do what the show’s communicators and tricorders did. And you can bet there are people working on warp drives and teleportation beams.

    Today I teach law and politics at a university in Japan. I see how scientifically unaware many of my students are, an ignorance that won’t stand them in good stead for the future. Moreover, many of them enter the law section only for its resume value, and are uninspired by that important subject, too. I’ve decided to teach an Introduction to Space Law course in the fall term, emphasizing how law and politics interact with science. The response from everyone I’ve mentioned it too — from students to faculty colleagues, and even people outside the university — is always excitement and interest. It’s not because they’re dying to learn the finer points of satellite frequency allocation under the Radio Regulations of the International Telecommunications Union, despite the economic significance of those rules.

  • Starviking

    Higher orbits would have done nothing for Hubble, save put it beyond the reach of the astronauts who were needed to repair it.

    As for Mars, our unmanned probes are great, but astronauts can move at metres per second – not per day, and don’t need image processing software to tell them something interesting is in their field of view.